tv [untitled] November 30, 2013 8:30am-9:01am PST
>> good afternoon. i'm laurence kornfield chief building inspector with the city of san francisco's department of building inspection. and this is one of our monthly brown bag lunch meetings which we do every third thursday and the public is invited to come and sit and join us and share their points of view as well. this is not a technical lecture but sort of a point of view. i ask people to come and share
points of view with me. and so for today's discussion about retaining walls and fences, we have a couple people joining us. pat buscovich, structural engineer who is one of the people who has seen more failed retaining walls in san francisco than anybody else. and he owns a few actually. and jim mccormick from the mr. -- planning department. he's been here 20, over 20 years. jim mccormick runs the planning information counter on the first floor at 1660 mission street. the signing information counter, by the way, is one of your primary sources for information in the city regarding what you can do, where you can do it, how you can do it. and if you want to reach the planning information counter, what do you do? you call, right? >> call. >> what is the phone number? 558-63 77.
the pic, planning information counter. jim mccormick. today's talk is fences and retaining walls. and one of the things i found most interesting is to show slides and talk about what we see in the slides as a way to trigger comments from our guests and your comments and questions as well. i think we have -- i have slides that i'm going to show you, basically three or four different pieces. the first piece is fences along the street. the second one is fence in people's back yards. the third part might be commercial fences. another part is retaining walls and maybe retaining walls that have fences on top. we have a lot of them in san francisco. and then retaining walls and issues related to retaining walls. we have a series of slides about that. and i will start by talking about this first slide, which
is so atypical in san francisco. a white picket fence in san francisco. this is what we usually do not see. but there are very specific rules, and the rules say that where you have a fence on the front property line, you may not need a per knit. -- permit. you can build a fence without a permit if under certain circumstances. >> one of the things everyone should make sure is, there are two different departments here. building department has their rules and the planning department has their rules. there are two code books you're going to have to look at. i think lawrence will be talking about both at the same time. but there are two different departments that regulate these fences and walls. so typically the planning department in the broadest term, the planning department tells you what you're allowed to do and the building department tells you how to do it and keeps the records for those things. okay, so, jim, why don't you tell us what the planning rules are for fences along front
property lines. >> in the front from the planning code perspective, the issue is whether you have a required set back. in any residential district, there are set backs up to a certain maximum. you have to set back also. so if you have that required set back and you wish to put a fence in the set back, then you're limited to a three-foot fence or a six-foot maximum height. if it's 75% open to perpendicular view, basically what it means is you've got to go up to six feet, you need some sort of iron fence or something that is very transparent. and you can't mix and match. so you can't put a three foot solid fence and then put three more feet up to the six foot that's open because obviously you're at least 60% doed by virtue of the three feet. >> basically if you're building a fence over three feet high, you need to talk to the planning department or make sure the planning department code allows it. >> can you grow a hedge? >> the question, can you grow a
hedge or plants? are plants regulated like fences? >> they're not. we don't regulate vegetation up to this point so you're free. >> that's a really good question. some people say i'm going to put a six foot fence in my backyard, it's exempt from permits and i'm going to plant bamboo that grows 15 feet high to block my neighbors looking into my hot tub or whatever it is. totally unregulated. vegetation is not regulated. knowing where your property line is is key to all of this. in this slide, we see a fence built on what many may or may not be the front property line. is it on my property or theirs? the city maintains in the office of the street use and mapping, they maintain careful records of all the properties. and with great diligence and care, you can try and figure out where your property is
based on those records. but we are not going to come out and survey or say, here's your property line. the city doesn't do that. we maintain records that says here's how big your property is. you can measure from the center line of the street, base of the curb, monument that might be placed somewhere that you can work your way up to. but if there are real legal issues, you have to hire a surveyor and trace this thing all the way out. yes, joe? >> we can give you precise boundaries for your lot to determine the size of your lot. streets, mapping, 554 -81 0, you can call them and they can give you the actual sidewalk width for anyplace in the city. so if you know the sidewalk width, you can get your front property line, measure from your curb and you know where your property starts. >> within a couple inches. >> still on the fence being on the street line, if it's a
house that a joins a street that is unimproved that is really a vacant lot with stairs up it, does that still apply? are you still limited by how high it is? >> the question was if you are facing that, just a normal accepted street by the city, an accepted street is is one where the city has accepted it for public use and maintenance because it meets the city's minimum standards for width and quality of street. for an unaccepted or unimproved street, do we have the same requitrents? >> the short answer is yes. the requirement space onset backs from the lot line, it's not in reference to the street, actually. the street can be relevant to the determination of the front versus the side yard. but other than that -- >> other particular problems about which is the front, which is the side. in fact, it's one of the few opportunities -- the code provides -- if you read the code carefully, it provides many opportunities, actually. and one of the things about
this particular thing is that some time the homeowner gets to choose which side they want to use as the front of their building. >> we partly took that away in the last couple years. it used to be you could select your frontage on a corner lot. now you can elect your frontage on a vacant corner lot. but if it's already developed, we have to look at it because we have to make sure that the election makes sense basically with respect to the existing pattern of development. >> here is another sign, an interesting and beautiful fence. this is up in potrero hill somewhere. do you have anything to say about this? >> one thing people should be aware of, san francisco, the streets used to be sloped. and around the turn of the century they leveled out all the streets. so from one side to the other, the curbs should be at the same height. you can be going up, you can be going down. at one time in san francisco, you could be driving down the street at a slope. so a lot of san francisco, when you go why is that house settled into the hill?
it's because they changed the street elevations and built retaining walls in front of the property so they could level out the street. so i would be -- wouldn't be surprised if that's what happened here. >> we're going to see a few of those in a moment. but yeah, that's what likely happened here. my neighborhood, i live in the inner sunset. if you drive up fifth avenue, everyone drives down on my side of the street, drives down into their garage. that's because they came along, leveled the street so they would meet the city standards and they would be acceptable, the streets for maintenance. okay, an interesting fence. so this is over 3 feet on the front property line. they would need a permit. depending on the issues about required front yard and all that, maybe it's okay. >> what kind of flowers, anybody know? d tarctiontion tura. -- datura. is that the same thing? >> it's beautiful.
>> enlarged, it's probably an issue with that fence. >> you're looking at the building. is it matching the average of the two adjoining properties? and it's more than three feet tall and it looks like one property on the left-hand side looks like it's set back a little bit. and this is on the property line. >> so if they came in to get a permit for it -- >> they asked for a picture, they might have a problem with that. >> it might be denied. if a permit is denied, there is a further process that you can take, which is -- >> alternatively, they can seek and justify a variance. that brings up the other issue of noncomplying fences. this could be one of them which wouldn't be allowable now, but may have been perfectly legal when it was put in there. and the general rule for noncomplying structures is that if you voluntarily raise a noncomplying structure, you can only put it back in accordance with the current rules. even if you've had that fence there since 1900, if you want to take it down and put it
back, you would not be able to put it back in the same manner. >> the building code says essentially the same thing. if you remove a building, you have to replace it with something that complies with today's rules. which allows you to maintain the building in accordance with the code. >> the rule is if you do less than 50%, it's considered maintenance. if you do more than 50%, then you cross the line and it's a new structure. that is the general practice. the idea is you can maintain a noncomplying structure, the house or fence, whatever, forever. >> in fact, there is a state law in the health and safety code, 17 950 something, that says no city may adopt any legislation that prohibits people from maintaining their property in accordance with its original legal construction. so we are required to let people maintain their property, reconstruct and repair it according to its original construction. >> a classic example would be if you have a rear set of steers that were dry-rotted, this section allows you to maintain it.
>> or any other portion of the building for that matter. >> what rules would be applicable if you have three-sided backyard fence and only one side, the one next to the street, needs to be replaced? >> okay. the question is what happens if you have a rear yard fence and you want to replace one side, the side fronting the street, did you say? >> that's why you take pictures and come in and talk to the planning staff and they make a decision. >> she's asking, i think, is that less than 50% repair, and therefore fall under the maintenance requirement. >> it would be case by case. >> case by case, our old friend. our old friend, okay. so, let's look at this slide. here we're on potrero hill. >> a two foot fence with a trellis. >> does the fence count toward the height of the fence? >> yes, it does. >> it's not exempt, it's part of the fence, part of the
structure. oh, oh, there's discussion about this. >> except for rear yards? >> there is interpretation that allows the trellis if it's attached to walls, to be a certain amount higher. i forget what the exact number is. but if it's a freestanding fence with the trellis on top, it would count -- >> okay. this fence is sitting on top of a curb. it's a retaining wall or wall that is sitting on -- i think we would all call this a curb. >> hearsay good thing you want to be careful of. where is grade? if that curb is a foot high on the left-hand side and inside that curb is dirt, the fence is one foot shorter on the inside versus the outside. so this is another planning issue of you measure from the inside or do you measure from the outside. >> yes, typically in that case you'd be measuring from the property that is applying. so if it's one we're seeing, we
measure from the foot of that curb. if the neighbor came in, it would be a little bit shorter in your example on the other side. if the grade of dirt is a foot up. >> the building code actually has a different definition of how you measure fence. we defer to the planning department for that in most cases. here is a fence we always see around town, slightly wavy, 20-year old fence. need replacement soon, usually made out of redwood -- >> dog ears. >> and there you go. and so, now, this is a corner building. >> it's probably a side yard. >> with the side yard, you could have a fence that was higher than three feet under what circumstances? >> some portions are what is called billable air i can't tellv not subject to either froth set back or rear yard. theoretically in the buildable
area which would include most of your side lot line, you can buildup the height limit. >> you could build a 30 foot sense, but the building code says your fence cannot exceed ten feet in a residential property. this fence we're looking at is six feet, it's okay. and the under the building code it would be exempt from a permit, up to six feet if it's between six and ten feet you would need to get a permit, and a freestanding fence over ten feet would not be allowed under the building code. >> and it would not be a louped under our code, under 10 feet. >> sounds easy, take some pictures, come in with the sand born map and have them walk you through it. it sounds complicated. >> okay. other typical -- this is the typical problem where the fence is sitting on top of the wall, a retaining wall. where are we measuring from for the height of this? >> if that is retaining the original grade which is the
typical case, in the rear we'd be measuring from the dirt basically, from the ground -- >> on the inside, on the property side. this may be a three or four or five foot. >> again, this is the thing. remember, grade in san francisco has been changed four or five feet all over the city as they leveled out the streets. what you think is original grade. top of the concrete was original grade and they leveled out the street. >> there's a fence. this is a fence that's just protecting a derelict site. it may even be a construction -- construction doesn't have different regulations because they're covered under the billion permit typically for the construction. do you have any comments on the construction fence? >> not really. >> it's one thing if you're going to do this, you want to maintain it. the noise, neighborhood more than the sloppy construction site. if you're going to have to put
one of these up, you want to make sure someone maintains it on a regular basis. they're really subject to being abused by people. so if you just install it and walk away, it's going to look like this. generally these fences are very marginally supported with concrete blocks. you can see it on the left-hand side. unless you continue and maintain them, they're going to start to fall apart. many cases in construction sites, there is a drop off on one side. this keeps people from falling into the hole. and there are actually specific requirements in the building code under table 16 b, special loads of building code volume 2. and the special load requirements say how much they should be able to resist. >> it has to meet standards. >> one thing you have to be careful of, when you put up these fences, the black is
basically a dust screen. if it gets windy, the dust does president get blown out. remember, this dust screen catches the wind and won't push your fence over. i've had projects where the wind has blown over temporary construction fences. the wind is a very strong force. you may not get it. but in a good wind, it could easily blow that fence over. >> we're talking about in construction where there might be a drop off. here along the street there is a drop off. someone is putting up a half hearted attempt -- this is very old, actually -- to keep people from falling in this hole next to the sidewalk. the building code requirements say that if there is a drop off of more than 30 inches, that you need to provide a guardrail. 30 inches. [laughter]
>> down, down, down, down, down, down, down. that's 30 inches. >> there you go, exactly like i said, 30 inches. required for the guardrail so people don't fall. (speaker not understood). somebody fell off a bridge into the water and the question was where do you measure, to the top of the water -- [laughter] >> so these are two significant issues here. i think it was to the bottom. >> i think this was a good example where you see the change and grade of the street. the street was raised and they built this to contain the aisle, guardrail around drop off. and the drop off can be anywhere there is a walking surface. someone's yard, i guess they need to go play if there is a drop off like this one. the guardrail has to be such that a sphere four inches in diameter cannot pass through
the guardrail. and that comes from the dimension of the medical society -- [multiple voices] >> it used to be six inches. it used to be too big. >> the height of the guardrail is also determined. he don't want to have a guardrail 24 inches. you could fall right over. >> the guardrail, if it is within an individual dwelling unit, inside 36 inches, highest is outside anywhere 42 inches high is the minimum height of a guardrail, 42 inches. that would be about how high -- [laughter] >> okay. so here is someone showing us the four-inch sphere cannot pass through. he's got tremendously tensioned cables or so he's trying to make it look. many people have asked, can we have these horizontal tables climb up and go over? there is nothing that would
prohibit us from having these horizontal rails or tables. >> as long as you tighten them up because they would go loose. >> here is the dog. the commercial -- commercials have different rules under your planning department, jim. >> there is no required set backs strictly speaking in commercial districts except where there is a residential component. we do have some industrial design guidelines which would probably look at cyclone fences or try to do something a little more attractive. >> without the barbed wire. >> you know this fence on the top has barbed wire. fences that are constructed in whole or in part of that wire are prohibited except with the express permission of the director and the fire department, with the following conditions on the top of a
fence more 7 in line in height. maybe, yeah, depending on who is driving. enclosed by a 7 foot high fence such that entry to the area is limited by the nonbar fence. you have to have an elder barbed fence. special localized protection within areas or areas within our building to isolate conditions. this doesn't meet moments. >> if you have a building that burned down and you want to keep kids from getting in, you put up? something that is a barrier. other than that, they don't want to have barbed wire fences. they're too slow they're a significant hazard. i -- >> i assume that was a commercial in the industrial
districts. the neighborhood industrial districts do have a rear yard starting at the ground bleach. sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, depending on the individual district. that may be subject to that also, depending. but generally commercial industrial districts, that's not the case. >> razor wire is subject to the same rules, other types of barbed wire. only under special circumstances, the building department and fire department. so, not typically like this. that's a double, razor wire and barbed wire. we get the message, keep out. >> double concertina wire. >> the fence we saw is razor wire. if it is an illegal fence, who enforces it. i hate to sort of say.
it's say cynical statement. i could go into any property in san francisco and find violations today in the code to find out if something is legal or not, we have to look at it to determine what it is. at the time it was constructed. it's a very (speaker not understood). we'll go out and investigate it and we'll do that research to look at when was it built, was there a permit and so on. short of either a public safety hazard or an imminent hazard or complaint. we normally don't go around looking for problems. the city has so many individual concompliance, nonconformance. we would ever get out of our own house if we want today do that. the answer is i don't think the city resources are addressed to address that issue. it would be nice if it was a perfect unfortunate world, but it isn't close.
the the (speaker not understood) was looked up 40 years ago. you'll have to look up the codes 40 years ago to see if it was something regulated. code doesn't allow it now. it's what code allowed when it was built. it gets more complicated if it wasn't built with a permit. so it's a lot of resource to try to figure this out. that one sense, would take an inspector two or three hours of research. to sort it all out. there would have to be hearings and meetings. it would be a big utilization of resources. okay. this is an interesting slide. i just was in north beach. there are all sorts of issues in this one little tiny alley. i'm sorry i don't recall the name of the alley. anyone know where this is in north beach? >> water street. >> water street perhaps? there are all sorts of things going on here.
there is aye case -- >> (speaker not understood) across the property line and that is a big no-no. >> the building inspection in our office, we have copies of all the historic building codes to go back to. i think we started in 1904 is the earliest one i have in my office. >> there are no plans pre-'06, no permits pre-'06. >> most of the permits were destroyed in the fire after the earthquake in 1906. we have all the codes going back and we can look up what the codes were going back if we can figure out when this thing was installed. that is a resource for you to know. how about the planning codes? we have historic planning codes. >> we do, all the way back. if you go all the way back to adopted 25 or 27 or so, the entire planning code is two-pages. [laughter] >> okay. so here we have a gate, is the gate subject to the fence requirement in any way.
>> certainly wouldn't be in any case. >> so the fence -- a gate, a gate is a door under the building code. this has to meet all the requirements of a door. you have to be able to walk up to the gate, turn the handle and get out. not a key allowed. they used to be okay, but that is a retroactive requirement under the san francisco housing code must be moved and replaced with the less you can get out in case of a fire. with youv of the most common type of fire, it's not going to work -- the buzzer won't work to let you out of the gas. -- gate. you need to replace those key locks and drills. do doors have to swing a certain way? yes, they do, but it's basically where the occupant load is 50 or more that becomes an issue. they have to swing out and in, either out or